OBITUARY: Maitama Sule: A servant’s son who almost became Nigeria’s president

Former Nigeria Permanent Representative to United Nations, Alhaji Maitama Sule died in a Cairo Hospital at the age of 89 years. In 1976, he became the Federal Commissioner of public complaints, a position that made him the nation's pioneer ombudsman. In early 1979, he was a presidential candidate of the National Party of Nigeria but lost to Shehu Shagari. He was appointed Nigeria's representative to the United Nations after the coming of civilian rule in September 1979. While there he was chairman of the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid. 03284/3/7/17/Jones Bamidele/NAN

But for high-level scheming during the National Party of Nigeria, NPN, nominating convention in 1978, Yusuf Maitama Sule who died on Monday would have picked the party’s princely ticket ahead of close opponent, Shehu Shagari.

Though the two frontline candidates served in the cabinet of Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, some two decades earlier, Mr. Sule was seen as more urbane, outgoing and better connected than his major opponent. Those qualities earned Mr. Sule support and distaste in equal measure.

While he wooed delegates with his oratorical skills and flamboyance, he was mistrusted by power brokers who viewed him as too independent and unwilling to be controlled.

However, as was later recounted by Dahiru Yahaya, a professor of history who was NPN secretary in Kano State, Mr. Sule’s charge at the ticket was truncated by a conspiracy, with his own kinsmen from Kano at the centre of it.

When it was apparent that the politician may pick the nomination ahead of Mr. Shagari at the re-run primaries, politicians, some very close to him, were mobilised overnight to launch a door-to-door sophisticated de-campaigning exercise.

“Those politicians moved round delegates’ rooms. They would give some money to each delegate and say; ‘Maitama appreciates your support but he said you should vote for Shagari tomorrow,” Mr. Yahaya recollected.

The next day, Mr. Shagari emerged victorious and went on to win the general election to become Nigeria’s first executive president in 1979.

In what was seen as a move to take the flamboyant politician out of the political cycle, Mr. Sule was appointed ambassador by Mr. Shagari and posted to the United Nations.

While at the UN, he chaired the United Nations Standing Committee Against Apartheid then ravaging South Africa.

A servant’s son liberated by education

Mr. Sule had risen from humble beginnings to attain national reckoning as one of the longest serving ministers in the truncated first republic and a favourite of the prime minister, Mr. Balewa.

The two shared a striking history. While Mr. Balewa’s father was a servant of Madaki of Bauchi, Mr. Sule’s father served the then powerful Kano kingmaker, Madaki Mahmudu.

It was after his master’s father that Mr. Sule’s father named his only son, born in 1929, Yusuf.

Mr. Sule often made references to his family background and described education as what placed him shoulder high with the emir, instead of serving him.

Under benevolent guidance of his father’s master, Madaki Mahmudu, young Sule was enrolled at Shahuci Elementary School in 1937. He subsequently attended Kano Middle School and Kaduna College (now Barewa College).

Mr. Sule taught at his alma mater, Kano Middle School and played significant roles in social mobilisation, touring villages with then Emir Muhammadu Sanusi throughout the emirate, on health, literacy and tax campaigns.

The emir would later turban him as Dan Masanin Kano, in acknowledgment of Mr. Sule’s knowledge, wisdom and roles in public campaigns. True to his title, Mr. Sule remained a repository of Kano and Nigeria’s history as well as acclaimed public speaker with sharp wit.

PIONEER OIL MINISTER

Mr. Sule, who became minister of mines and power in 1954 at the age of 29, signed deals and contracts with Shell for oil prospecting and exploration in Nigeria.

He saw to the establishment of the Nigeria oil company and nominated Nigerian businessmen on the Nigeria/Shell joint board. Among Mr. Sule’s nominees were Louis Ojukwu, a prominent businessman and father of late Biafran leader Emeka Ojukwu, as well as Aliko Dangote’s maternal grandfather, Sanusi Dantata.

For his fondness of the late politician, Mr. Balewa nominated young Sule to stand-in for him in a ball dance with visiting Queen Elizabeth. The young man had already started his rehearsals when the then powerful Finance Minister, Festus Okotie-Eboh, opposed the idea as disrespectful of the queen.

Mr. Sule relished telling this story and had his picture in bowtie bought for the purpose to show for it.

The octogenarian, also known by his traditional title, Danmasanin Kano, died in the early hours of Monday while on admission at a private hospital in Cairo, Egypt.

He was flown to the Egyptian hospital on Saturday after doctors at Kano’s Nasarawa Hospital diagnosed him of pneumonia and chest infection.

Mr. Sule’s corpse is expected to back in the country by 2 p.m. on Tuesday for burial at 4:30 p.m. at the Kano Emir’s Palace.

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